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Beach erosion in Florida a Catch 22

Florida’s beaches are the lifeblood of the state. They attract tourists, who bring money into the state’s economy, and sustain an enormous variety of ecological habitats.

But now, because of erosion, these leisure spots are draining away right from under Floridians’ feet.

The problem has been battled by government officials and citizens alike, and consequently drained their collective pocketbooks.

Beach erosion has been a problem for Florida for many years, but only in the past 20 years or so have those citizens and government officials taken notice and action.

“Seventy-five percent of Florida’s beaches have been victims of erosion,” said the Coastal Coordinator for Florida’s coastline, Nicole Elko. “So much so that the Department of Environmental Protection classified it as critical.”

The statistical data of the state’s erosion problem has only served to further fuel immense statewide renourishment projects that are various in number and technique, but similar in results — lack of a solution for solidarity.

“Erosion is a persistent problem,” said Al Hine, a USF marine science professor.

“We keep renourishing, and the water and wind keep chipping it away,” Hine said. “It’s like throwing money down a rat hole.”

That is the kind of sentiment being echoed throughout the marine and geological communities. The state may have found a way to slow down the erosion process for now, but barring a natural miracle, many are asking what the solution will be the next time.

“A cubic yard of sand costs $2 – $10 each,” Hine said. “The reality is that the average renourishment project needs about 100,000 yards of sand. Add it up; it’s scary.”

Hine said the future seems to hold only bigger problems that may be caused by the current methods of renourishment.

“In the future we may look for cheaper methods of delivery and placement for replenishing beaches,” said Peter Howd, a USF geology professor. “But our current systems are like taking aspirin for a brain tumor.”

However, money is not the only problem facing replenishment projects. Some beach rebuilding undertakings mean digging up sand offshore. This has caused the destruction of countless marine habitats, especially those of benthic (coral) creatures.

“On the East Coast, it can be a major problem,” Elko said. “Here on the West coast, however, we don’t have the same problems. We use a different method, sonar scanning, before a replenishment project can go into effect. If we find an abundance of life, we can’t do anything because we wouldn’t want to hurt an ecosystem in any way.”

Another problem is that of a proposed solution actually causing another problem.

“Some projects just randomly dredge sand from just offshore,” Howd said. “This leads to a gaping hole in the ocean floor which refills itself by, well, pulling the sand back in from the beach.”

The monetary factor seems to be the greatest concern that may figure into the future of beach erosion renourishment plans. It could mean harder decisions monetarily, rather than strategically.

“On some level it will eventually be: ‘OK, do we get books for the school kids or sand for the beaches?'” Hine said.

The problem is not only how much the state will pay, but also who will be paying it.

“The federal government pays 60 percent, while state and local split the taxes,” Elko said. “Much of that money, state and local-wise, is coming from tourist taxes.”

The erosion situation is a Catch 22. Tourists come to the state for the beaches. If Floridians are in danger of losing their beaches, the sand must be replenished with state money – which comes from tourism.

“More people visit Miami Beach annually than Yosemite Park, Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon combined,” Elko said. “As you can see, we really need to keep our beaches healthy for more reasons than just natural reasons.”

This fact, according to experts, is abundantly clear to people all over the Sunshine State. They say the beaches are slowly becoming extinct, and they must be saved. But only time and money will tell if they can be.